Annual Report 2009

Opinions in the Age of New Media

Democracy in Development by Robert G. Picard

  • Professor of Media Economics

Contemplating Democracy without the Press

New communication opportunities are not just changing the media environment, they are changing society as a whole. Fear for the future of democracy in a World without newspapers is caused mainly by a fear of change.

Democracy in Development For two and a half centuries, western society has embraced the idea that the press is the cornerstone of democracy. According to this fundamental philosophical ideal, a free press provides avenues for the expression and debate of ideas and opinions, provides journalism that observes and explains events and developments affecting society, and holds governments and individuals with economic, social, and political power accountable for their actions.
To make this possible, we have expected the press to provide diverse and pluralistic content that includes a wide range of information, opinions, and perspectives on developments that affect the lives of citizens. The press has been expected to mobilize the public to participate in and carry out their responsibilities in society. It has been expected to help citizens identify with and participate in the lives of their community, state, and nation. It has been expected to serve the needs and represent the interests of widely differing social groups and to ensure that information and ideas are not narrowed by governmental, economic, or social constraints. Simultaneously, the press has been expected to serve their economic self-interests to produce profits, to grow, and to contribute to national economies. We have expected a lot from the press.
Today, the ability of the press to fulfill those roles and expectations is under question as the business confronts diminishing consumption of newspapers, reduction in resources, cost cutting, and consolidation. These are caused because western newspaper markets are now mature and saturated; an ever-widening array of broadcast, Internet, and mobile platforms are competing with the press in the provision of news, information, and advertising. Consequently, the press from which the public traditionally received news and information, in which public debates were moderated, and in which collective public experiences were generated, are receiving less public attention.
At some point in the not-too-distant future, the printed newspaper as we know it will disappear, migrating to e-readers or the Internet. Because of declining readership among the population during the past three to four decades, newspapers already began transforming from a mass medium to a niche medium. The move to digital distribution will push the press further into the niche category and make its readers primarily the socially, economically, and politically active members of society.
 Robert G. Picard is Hamrin
Professor of Media Economics
and director of the Media
Management and Transformation
Center at Jönköping
International Business School,
Sweden, and a fellow at the
Reuters Institute, Department
of Politics and International
Relations, University of
Oxford. He is the author and
editor of 24 books and editor
of Journal of Media Business
Studies. He has held professorships
in Europe, North
America, and Asia and was
previously a fellow at the
Shorenstein Center at the
John F. Kennedy School of
Government at Harvard
University.
Digital distribution will also change the content and role of the digital press in society. People read and comprehend content differently on screens than on paper because of the way that the brain is wired and the ways that perception and memory work. Content on screens tends to be more effective if shorter, more visual, and video presentations are involved; lengthy analyses and opinion pieces are harder for the mind to process on screens. Consequently, traditional presentations of journalism, analysis, and commentary as practiced in print will not be as effective on computer, e-reader, and smart phone screens.
As the ability to convey serious, in-depth content is diminished, the role of news organizations in providing avenues for expression, debate, and analysis will continue to decline. As it does so, the exalted place the press has held among media will diminish as well.
Thus, we are left to ponder the future of democracy without the press.
Does Democracy Really Need the Press? Most of us have assumed that democracy requires the press as we know it. Democratic and social theorists from John Milton and Thomas Jefferson, Alexis de Tocqueville to John Dewey, and Walter Lippmann to Jürgen Habermas have all asserted the roles of the press in creating political community and have portrayed the press as intermediaries between governors and the governed, as overseers of governmental acts, and as creators of forums in which public debate takes place.
In practice, however, these relations have never been so evident because democracy developed and thrived before the press as we know it today even existed. Even in modern times, democratic movements to overthrow colonialism and its residual conditions were successful without a democratically leaning or sympathetic press. In Africa and Asia, democracies emerged when colonial powers and conditions such as apartheid were rejected by the population despite the lack of support in the press. The struggle for democracy in Central and Eastern Europe went forward without the press carrying out the democratic functions we believe they serve.
Clearly, the press can make important contributions to democratic processes, but there is little evidence that other forms of communications or different types of organizations are unable to serve some of the news, commentary, and debate functions necessary for community building and democracy. This is especially true in an era in which information dissemination, community building, and some debate and discussion can be served through new communications technologies.
Despite the love many of us have for the press, democracy doesn't require the press. What it requires is the service of the informational, debate, and accountability functions that the press has traditionally played better than other media in western society.
Press Form and Functions: Part of the concern exists because many observers continue to emphasize the form of the press rather than its functions. They recognize that contemporary changes are stripping
the press of its financial resources and question how the press will continue to carry out the range of functions and activities that it has in the past.
They ask the wrong questions, however. The press does not need to do everything it has done in the past; rather it needs to adjust its functions and activities to the needs of citizens and society in the new environment. This means that the fundamental questions need to be what functions traditional news providers such as the press should fulfill in the future and what functions new players will perform.
The wide range of content provided in the press was designed to serve particular functions for society and the press business. News of local, national, and international events and developments served surveillance functions to make readers aware of what was happening around them. Analyses and in-depth explorations of issues and trends were made to increase understanding. Investigations of government and corporate activities were made to hold the powerful accountable. Financial news was included to support decision-making by merchants, manufacturers, and investors. Commentary and criticism were provided to reflect and spark political, social, and cultural debate. Letters to the editors were included to provide social interaction. Sports, entertainment, and lifestyle news and features were provided to serve diversion and amusement needs and because more people were willing to buy papers when that content was included.
The press as we know it was constructed in response to the social, economic, political, and technological conditions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Its current form cannot be expected to survive the fundamental social, economic, political, and technological transformations that are now occurring in society because the original conditions are disappearing.
How the Functions will Change: The content and the functions provided by the press will change in the future, especially as they migrate to new platforms where a far greater variety of news, information, and commentary sources are available.
One reason for this change is that the lower cost structures for operating digital platforms is producing increasingly focused and specialized providers of news in online, mobile, and e-reader environments. These are often run by people more knowledgeable than journalists, some of whom were previously sources for journalists. Economic news and analysis is being provided by economists, weather news and information by meteorologists, medical news and information by physicians, and science news by scientists. Some of these sites are intended for professionals, but a growing number are intended for the general public.
The appearance of these sites is reducing the reliance on the press for news and information, and online software is now allowing readers to aggregate the various sources of news on personalized news pages - much the way the press has traditionally aggregated news from multiple sources.
Such changes require the press to begin rethinking the way it provides content -both in the current print and online editions and on other platforms they may adopt in the future. Some of the content categories traditionally in the press will diminish or disappear in the future.
The degree of change in each content category will depend upon the media structure in countries, the type, location, and size of papers involved, and the availability of alternative providers in the dominant language(s) of a country. In some nations, the national and metropolitan press will experience the strongest change, whereas it may be the regional and local press in others.
These changes, however, will mean that financial and staff resources previously expended for some content categories can be redirected toward other news activities or can be dropped as resources decline.
In the future, international and national news will play a smaller part in overall content of the printed press and any local news sites. Most of the press has relied on news agencies or leading national papers for the bulk of that coverage and in the future the news websites of the national press, as well as portals such as Yahoo!, Google, and MSN, news aggregators, and broadcasters will dominate distribution of the daily flow of information about national and international events.
Analysis, in-depth explorations, and investigations will be undertaken by the press and by new journalistic organizations established to carry out those activities. Some will operate as news providers to the public themselves; others will become providers to the press.
Financial and business news is increasingly shifting to specialized international and national providers, with specialized papers and magazines and online and mobile providers providing higher quality and greater coverage than the general press. Financial and business news will decline in importance for the general press when local relevance is unclear. Stock tables, quarterly and annual performance reports for national and international firms, and news of executives will move out of the general press and off their websites to other platforms that better serve readers interested in that news and information. Commentary and criticism in its traditional form will lose a good deal of impact as new sources of commentary, criticism, and debate flourish on the Internet. Bloggers and discussion forums are providing new ways for the public to vigorously interact regarding public events and issues and are promoting new commentators through democratic choice that are replacing the authority previously held by editors and columnists because of the constraints on media. Sports, entertainment, and lifestyle news will be reduced in the general press, finding its home in tabloids and online and mobile services devoted to those topics.
Where does this leave the general press? Local and regional news is less likely to be gathered and distributed by large players, leaving opportunities for the press at those levels to carve out local niches for themselves and find new and better ways to cover and interact with their communities.
Community journalists typically have not regularly covered the range of public agencies and activities that have been traditionally covered by organized journalistic practice in the press. In the future they may be providers of niche information or may expand their activities to take on that greater range of coverage and journalistic practices. It needs to be recognized as well that many of these news blogs and websites are covering small communities and niche topics far better than the press traditionally did.
Clearly online news startups are beginning to play roles at the local or national levels in a number of countries, but even with charitable and advertising funding, the size and scope of their operations are far below those of the traditional press. They are currently seen as supplements to rather than replacements for news provision by the press, but this is changing and they will continue to develop over time.
The New Era and Position for the Press: The contemporary developments are not diminishing the need for news and the functions previously performance by the press, but they are reducing the need for the press as we know it today. There will always remain a need for news organizations that carry out the organized, day-to-day surveillance of society and in-depth exploration and analysis of issues and events. What is changing, however, are the ways that news is financed, the means by which news and information are distributed, how news is consumed, and the sustainability of existing news organizations.
These developments are unsettling to anyone who cares about the roles of the press in public life. However, while financing news in the emerging environment will be different from the recent past, it will not so different from the news environment in the more distant past.
Historically, the first collection and dissemination of news was funded in ancient times by emperors and kings. They used governors and officials throughout their realms to collect news and information and send it to the seat of power. The collected information was then shared with officials throughout the realm to assist in governance activities. To gain foreign news, the monarch sent emissaries, consuls, and ambassadors to collect news and information in places important for trade or seen as potential threats to their realms. This pattern can be seen as an imperial finance model that was designed to help manage the interests of the state.
In the Middle Ages, a commercial elite financing model developed, in which wealthy merchants hired correspondents in cities and states with which they traded to collect information about political and economic developments relevant to trade. This news brought commercial advantages to the leading merchants. It was not intended for broader dissemination and was held in confidence.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a broader social elite financing model developed to support newspapers serving the needs of the aristocracy and wider merchant classes. Even in this model, news was not profitable and newspapers were subsidized by other printing and commercial activities, governments and political parties, and merchant associations.
The mass media financing model appeared in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, made possible by the industrial revolution, urbanization, and wage earning. In this model, news was provided for the masses at a small fee, but subsidized by advertising sales. Even in this model there is some heritage of a split press: a quality press with a heavier reliance on advertising and a tabloid or boulevard press that was still dependent on advertising to a lesser degree than the former.
This is a great deal of uncertainty about how society will support the press functions in the twenty-first century. The mass media financing model is diminishing and it appears that we may be returning to some form of social elite financing. This is particularly significant because the switch between the social elite financing model and the mass media financing model was part of the democratization of western society, in which the
greater bulk of people were brought into social decision-making and needed information and expressive opportunities in order for democratic processes to play out.
The appearance of communications technologies that provide widespread ability for citizens to search and retrieve news and information and to engage in broad public discussion and debate, however, means that even with a social elite news financing model the general public is not being relegated to the position of poor communication and information access that existed prior to the mass press.
This is happening because far more means for communicating about the events of the day exist today than in the past. The traditional press has relied heavily on the public for news, photos, and videos of events such as the protests in Iran and the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile. The burgeoning number of hyperlocal news sites is covering neighborhoods and small town developments far better than the press ever has. The public is providing commentary and opinion to a wide audience through blogs, social networks, and websites and is engaging in discussion of events, issues, and trends in ways they could not when only the traditional press existed.
Many professional journalists are uncomfortable with the idea of such citizen journalists, believing that only trained journalists can make effective news and informational contributions. They forget that the press relied on nonprofessional journalists for the majority of its history. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, for example, nonprofessional correspondents around the world wrote roundups and stories for newspapers in Europe and North America. Similar correspondents in towns too small for their own papers performed an equivalent task for papers in neighboring cities.
What is different is that the professionalism of journalism in the twentieth century produced the idea that only similarly trained, professional journalists could adequately convey the news of the day and that there are benefits in regular news work that these new enterprises and individuals are currently unable to provide.
Social leaders - including newspaper editors and columnists - find it disconcerting that a wider array of citizens now has the opportunity to comment on public events and politics. Part of this is sheer elitism and wariness about giving a direct voice to the masses; part is the knowledge that it is reducing the necessity for the commentary function in the press and reducing the influence of traditional social and political organizations.
In the new environment there are clearly roles for the use of blogs and social media for news and information gathering and dissemination, as well as public discussion. Contemporary communications technologies are supporting collective contemplation. While not producing face-to-face discussion, blogs and technology-assisted social networking have increased opportunities for individuals to convey their opinions and ideas, to inform each other, and to respond to and engage in conversation in ways that were limited by traditional mass media. Concurrently, technologies are beginning to allow effective meta-analyses of buzz, blogs, and social networking that gather topics and some sense of the opinions being expressed. These information technologies thus allow aggregating the views of millions in ways not previously possible.
Where such technologies will take us is unclear, but the contemporary engagement and contemplation by millions of people online is far better for society than the disenfranchisement that mass society previously encouraged. Media organizations will have to wrestle with how this collective contemplation is altering the roles and functions of editorial writers, op-ed authors, and columnists. They will have to increasingly engage with the public and see their roles as provoking conversation, not merely telling people what to think. One of the greatest effects of search and social media has been as redistribution platforms for professionally produced news and features. This redistribution can both benefit and harm news organizations, depending upon whether it drives readers, listeners, and viewers to the original source of the material or conveys it without taking individuals to the original source that benefits from advertising based on the number of users who view material there.
Millions of people use new technologies, yet even in this time of exploration and experimentation with them, it is clear that the users of these digital tools react to them in different ways. Some find them highly useful and satisfying; others find them disappointing. Some find them a worthy pastime; others conclude they are a waste of time. They are more important to some people than to others. Not everyone wants to be or will be equally wired, communicating, or sharing their opinions and the details of their lives. Some people find the communications technologies more rewarding in business; others emphasize the personal benefits.
It is still early when it comes to the use of social media by news organizations. Already, however, we can find some indications of the effectiveness of these interactive social and instant messaging technologies. They tend to more beneficial for national and large metropolitan news organizations than they are for smaller local ones. This is because they offer the competitive advantages of making the brand omnipresent in the face of the myriad competing alternative sources of news and information. When their use is more targeted at building effective personal relationships with readers, listeners, and viewers, they appear to be more useful for smaller local news organizations. There, the contacts can be more individual and intimate and the volume of contact is generally not as overwhelming as for large organizations.
Although it is too early to fully forecast what the communication environment will be like in 25 years, press enterprises need not disappear as the transformation occurs if they transform themselves as well.
It is likely that established organizations will remain the primary providers of news and information in their communities if they operate print, online, mobile, e-reader, and whatever distribution platforms come along that we cannot yet envision. Print may disappear as the primary news platform, but is likely to remain for special printed reports and significant in-depth news that cannot be conveyed well on screens.
Press enterprises can become the primary community forums in which the public discusses and debates issues online, but only if they are willing to embrace the new roles of individuals in the democratic process and find new ways to make the process open and effective.
The press as we know it will become a niche medium that continues to facilitate engagement and democratic processes, but it will play a far more diminished role than in the past because it no longer has monopolistic control over communication.
Fear of the future without the printed press and of the prospects for democracy is primarily caused by fear of change and unwillingness to seriously consider how new communications opportunities are altering not only the media environment but society as a whole. Digital technologies alter the roles and power of individuals, reduce the importance of intermediary institutions such as the press, schools, churches, and government in conveying and interpreting information, and create opportunities for far greater democratization of many aspects of life than existed in the past.
This transition of society will be uneven, messy, and damaging to existing institutions, but it is allowing more people in more locations to participate in democratic activities and in decision-making processes in which they could not participate in the past. Rather than fearing the future, we should be encouraged by these prospects for democracy.
This does not mean there are not democratic challenges to be faced. We need to find ways, including governmental and non-governmental support, to provide resources necessary to ensure that news gathering and distribution takes place. This may come through taxes on Internet service providers, subsidies to news enterprises, and support for creating non-commercial enterprises.
We must also be wary of control over communication infrastructures and the major forums for discussion and debate in the virtual world. Competition and communication policies should be used to ensure that ownership and control do not interfere with the democratic gains that the technology provides.
Ultimately, we come back to the question of whether democracy can exist without the press. I believe the answer is yes. The printed press is becoming increasingly unnecessary for democracy, but some of its functions remain essential. As technology continues to progress in the twenty-first century, we need to ensure that the means for traditional press functions are promoted and protected.